america grows up


In February, 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson rhapsodized about young America, “the country of the Future,” as “a country of beginnings, of projects, of vast designs and expectations.” That May, Samuel F. B. Morse telegraphed the message “What hath God wrought,” from Washington to Baltimore, overthrowing, in one electric instant, the “tyranny of distance.” The next month, a railroad from Boston reached Emerson’s home town of Concord, Massachusetts. Less than a year later, in the spring of 1845, by which time the Boston railroad had snaked its way to Fitchburg, forty miles west, and telegraph wires had begun to stretch across the continent like so many Lilliputian ropes over Gulliver, Emerson’s eccentric friend, the twenty-seven-year-old Henry David Thoreau, dug a cellar at the site of a woodchuck’s burrow on a patch of land Emerson owned, on Walden Pond, about a mile and a half outside town. (Thoreau had lived in Emerson’s house, as his handyman.) He borrowed an axe, and hewed framing timbers out of white pine. “We boast that we belong to the Nineteenth Century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation,” Thoreau later wrote, from the ten-by-fifteen-foot cabin he built over that cellar, at a cost of twenty-eight dollars and twelve and a half cents.

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